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Someone Please Stop Me Before I Budget Again

There are three reasons why you shouldn’t have been surprised by the Feb. 13 CongressNow article about New Mexico GOP Sen. Pete Domenici’s proposal to create a two-year federal budget process.

[IMGCAP(1)]First, Domenici has been making this same proposal about every year for the past two decades. That makes it the Harold Stassen of proposed federal budget process changes. (Stassen was an almost constant candidate for president; he ran nine times from 1948 to 1992.) It also makes Domenici’s statement when he introduced the bill (“This is an idea whose time has come”) a bit ridiculous.

Second, the person who wrote the story for CongressNow, Vicki Needham, is a good reporter.

Third, and by far most important, it’s traditional for the president and Members of Congress to propose changes in the budget process when they can’t or won’t deal with the budget itself.

And we’re at that point this year.

The fact that there won’t be a major effort this year to deal with short- or long-term fiscal problems is the result of a number of factors. Narrow majorities in both houses of Congress, a White House that won’t compromise under any circumstances when it comes to the budget, an economy that makes deficit reductions appear to be harmful and the 2008 elections all have combined to make this year’s budget debate into a nonevent.

So in the absence of real progress, the White House and Congress are talking about procedural changes that, if enacted, supposedly would fix the budget problem. The Bush 2009 budget (Does anyone remember it? It was released only three weeks ago?) included a number of process revisions and the Domenici two-year budget is just one of the earliest of what will be coming from Capitol Hill the rest of the year.

None of these proposed changes have any chance of being adopted this year.

Revisions in the federal budget process only have been enacted when there first was a consensus about the problem that needed to be corrected.

The 1974 Congressional Budget Act was a response to the then-generally accepted notion that Congress needed to have a way to deal with the president on fiscal policy, so an outcome-neutral process was created. Eleven years later, there was a new consensus that the deficit was the problem, so Gramm-Rudman-Hollings changed the process to require it to be reduced.

Not only is there absolutely no consensus on Capitol Hill today on what the budget problem is, there’s not even a consensus that there is a problem. Because of that, it’s simply not likely that any budget process change, small or large, will be considered seriously.

And many, like the Domenici two-year proposal, shouldn’t be considered anyway.

It sounds right in theory: Congress only passes a budget every other year and uses the additional time to do other things that need to get done.

In practice, though, the concept fails miserably. We have little ability to correctly project spending and revenues one year in advance, so asking everyone to do it for two years assures the estimates will be that much less accurate. That virtually guarantees there will have to be one or more supplemental appropriations every year, something that already is under severe attack because those bills generally don’t receive the same level of scrutiny inside or outside of Congress as the regular appropriations.

The Domenici plan also is based on the assumption that Congress will do more oversight in the year when the budget and appropriations bills don’t have to be enacted. But the authorizing committees that have most of the oversight responsibilities don’t have many budget responsibilities now. This means that, as the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has amply demonstrated this year, they already have the time to do the work Domenici is suggesting needs to be done. As was obvious from 2001 to 2006, no matter how much time is available, oversight simply is something that some committees prefer not to do.

Finally, for centuries the House and Senate Appropriations committees have fervently believed it is their responsibility to pass annual appropriations.

Appropriations members and staff bristle when anyone even hints at the value of an omnibus appropriation or full-year continuing resolution. It’s hard to believe, therefore, that they would ever voluntarily give up half their power by changing the budget process to make decisions every other year.

The most remarkable thing about any discussion about federal budget process changes is that anyone thinks they’re actually necessary to deal with the budget. The White House and Congress already have the power they need to reduce spending or increase revenues to reduce the deficit or, as the fiscal stimulus package enacted this past month makes clear, to increase spending and reduce revenues whenever it suits their needs.

When a consensus about the budget problem doesn’t exist, a proposal to change the process generally is either a way to change the power balance (the plan to make the Congressional budget resolution into a joint resolution is really an attempt by the White House to give the president more influence earlier in the process), a way to make it easier to accomplish certain policy objectives (capital budgeting makes certain projects appear to be less expensive) or a way to make it look like you’re doing something when little is actually happening.

A proposed budget process change also is often an admission that, left on their own, the president and Congress won’t use the power they already have to do what needs to be done. In other words, they need to be stopped before they budget again.

Stan Collender is managing director at Qorvis Communications and author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.” His blog is Capital Gains and Games.

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